Backstory: Relevant Information or Inconsequential Event?

Today, I’d delighted to welcome my good friend and fellow author, Brenda Hill to my Blog. A novelist, short story writer, Brenda is the author of two novels, Ten Times Guilty, and Beyond the Quiet, and a non-fiction book, Plot your way to Publication, which I can highly recommend. Brenda also writes features and restaurant reviews for her local newspaper and teaches novel writing and edits manuscripts on a freelance basis. Her website can be found at www.brendahill.com

A few months back I read Brenda’s article on Backstory, something that many new writers spend too much time on, and I’m glad to say she’s agreed to let me post it here.

When we begin a new novel, we need to intimately know our characters. We must know their motivations – why they do certain things and what causes them to react to events with warmth or hostility. Otherwise, their strong reactions or nonchalance may seem strange to other people.

So, to prevent our readers from thinking our character is an escapee from the psycho ward, we create backstories for them, inventing histories, naming parents and siblings, all information we hope will bring that character to life on the page. Some writers go into such detail that they fill page after page of character history, even listing grades the character received in school.

Not me.

While I’m a strong believer in plotting my story beforehand, I’m not one who needs to know what day of the week my character washes her hair – unless it’s relevant to the story. That’s the key. Our readers do not need to know every facet of a character’s life – unless that particular facet is an important storyline.

Suppose, for example, I begin a new book and name my main character Lucy. And let’s further suppose I create a northern Minnesota history for her, and after describing her, I want a character trait that other people would consider a bit ‘quirky’ but harmless. While I’m trying to decide what to give her, my husband flips the TV channel to the latest rerun of Arachnophobia, so I decide to give Lucy a strong fear of spiders. She’ll scream and run at the sight of even a harmless garden spider that may have found its way into her apartment or dormitory.

What do I do with that information? I could use it as a comic relief and show this fear as a source of teasing from her friends, but if that’s the case, it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included.

But what if I include WHY Lucy’s fear is so strong. Remember, in fiction, we need to show motivations, not only in character conflicts, but we need to know WHY Lucy screams at the sight of a spider. We must remember to be like a child and always ask why, why, why? Why did George slug his brother on graduation night? Why does Lucy have this overwhelming fear of spiders? While most people do not particularly like spiders, most will not go into hysterics when spotting one. So why does Lucy scream and run?

Now we can invent something brilliant, such as a near-fatal black widow spider bite when she was seven. Venomous spiders are rare in Minnesota, but let’s say her parents visited the Twin Cities and bought home a tropical houseplant from Florida, and one of the leafy branches hid this nice, fat, poisonous black spider. Lucy survived the bite, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to the story, but we could create this horrible experience at the hospital and how she was deathly ill.

That event, even though it’s dramatic, is just that – a dramatic event in her history. As with our friends’ and neighbors’ background, we might find the event mildly interesting, but really, who cares? I shouldn’t bore my readers with that bit of backstory unless it relates to the main plot.

If the plot is about Lucy meeting the love of her life while in graduate school and debating whether or not to marry him and move to another town in Minnesota, then the spider background is not an issue. It’s simply an event that happened in her life that is of no interest to anyone else and shouldn’t be mentioned.

But suppose I want to use it in my story? Suppose I want Lucy to overcome her horror of spiders as part of her character growth? If so, I’d need to invent a storyline where spiders could be an issue.

How about if the love of her life is a young man who thinks the curved tail of a scorpion is fascinating, loves to examine the long, hairy legs of a tarantula, and can’t wait to compare the beautiful red markings of different black widows? Lucy adores him beyond everything, or most everything – she’s repelled by his career choice, which, of course, is Arachnology. He wants to study these creatures and write a book about them, so he plans to move from nice, safe Minnesota and live in the states where their species thrive.

Ah hah! Now we have a possible storyline with the character trait as a main source of conflict.

And to make matters worse, we turn up the heat and say he’s just been offered his dream job as an assistant to the country’s foremost authority on spiders, but only on condition that he immediately accept the position and make the move within the next two weeks. He asks Lucy to marry him and accompany him to his new location.

Lucy now has a dilemma: her fear or her lover? She must make a fast decision, one that could affect her entire life. And readers, if I’ve written the story well enough, will turn the pages to see what she decides. Now I’ve taken a character trait and not only used it in my story, but I’ve used it as a major interest of conflict and built a story around it.

How about traits for your characters? I’m sure you can be more imaginative than the fear of spiders, so list several that are of interest to you. Then explore the conflicts each could trigger. If you can develop a trait and use it to build your story, it’s relevant. The others you can disregard – until the next novel.

Backstory

On my recent appearance on the Rony Robinson Show on BBC Radio Sheffield, we talked about backstory or the infodump, and why telling the reader too much, too soon, should be avoided.

What exactly do writers mean when they talk about backstory? Basically, it is filling the reader in on the background of your story, why the action takes place where it does, the subtext of your character’s lives, and the reasons for the big question or problem they have to solve.

Backstory is essential to novels, but the opening pages aren’t the place to go into depth about your character’s past or the places they inhabit. The trick is to give the reader just enough information to make them care, and want to find out what happens next.

You need to think carefully about the opening chapter. Readers don’t necessarily have to know that your heroine has blue eyes, blonde hair, and lives with her aged mother in a tumbledown cottage, or that the hero has two siblings who have green eyes and regularly tap him for a loan.

Think of the opening of your novel as the equivalent of an appetiser—a bit of teasing in order to keep the reader hooked. A couple of sentences here and there, no long blocks. Backstory is showing not telling. Your readers want to launch into the action. They want to see what’s happening. They don’t want to be told.

What about flashbacks – those little scenes where your character starts to think about something that took place weeks/months/years ago? Flashbacks can slow the pace of the story and confuse readers. They are best used in a prologue, but be careful that you don’t tell the reader too much, too soon. There are three primary ways to include backstory in your novel.

  1. Dialogue.
  2. Narrative.
  3. Description.

I prefer to use dialogue. It feels more natural to have my characters talk about their past, or explain their reason for acting in a particular way. But it’s a personal choice and you have to decide what works best for that part of the story.

But how do you know how much backstory to use?

That’s a difficult question, and to a certain extent, the decision is yours. Just remember, too much backstory will make the reader bored and tempt him or her to put the book down. You’ll lose their attention. They may even wonder why they picked up the book in the first place, and that’s the last thing any writer wants.